Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.63 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.63

Eftychia Stavrianopoulou (ed.), Shifting Social Imaginaries in the Hellenistic Period: Narrations, Practices, and Images. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 363.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2013.  Pp. xxii, 436.  ISBN 9789004257986.  $174.00.  

Reviewed by Jennifer Finn, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität (


Studies in the complicated nature of ancient intercultural relations—and their effect on self-identification processes—have increased exponentially in the last thirty years. Works by scholars such as Edith Hall,1 and—with special attention to issues of “Hellenization”— the pioneering work of Kuhrt and Sherwin-White,2 are complemented in more recent time by the studies of scholars such as Erich Gruen3 and Ian Moyer.4 Recent trends have sought to situate issues of cultural contact and acculturation within a broader theoretical framework. John Ma’s5 work, which is at the forefront of such efforts, expanded Renfrew and Cherry’s Peer Polity model6 by shifting the focus from archaeological objects to textual material, and from theorizing change to understanding markers of stability, in order to cast light on modes of interaction in the Hellenistic World. The present volume, the outcome of a conference hosted at the Internationales Wissenschaftsforum Heidelberg in November 2011, is a welcome contribution to this dialogue.

In the introduction, Stavrianopoulou presents the overarching goal of the collection of essays “as an effort to understand the multidirectional processes of cultural interaction, to describe their different modes, and to explain their consequences.” (19) For this purpose, Stavrianopoulou suggests the use of the idea of a “social imaginary,” first introduced by Castoriadis7 in 1987, later revised and further elaborated upon by Taylor8 in 2002. In Taylor’s model, social surroundings are “imagined” by the inhabitants of a community and expressed through the use of images, stories, and legends; the formulation of these “imagined” landscapes and perceptions affected the institution of common practices within a society. The connection between imaginary and practice is such that a shift in the former will yield a reinterpretation of the latter. This is an effective theoretical model for discussing intercultural relations in the ancient world, and the application of this line of thinking is utilized admirably and consistently by the authors in this volume, who use the concept of the “social imaginary” to understand the ways in which community identities are changed and reinterpreted based on interactions with each other and with other cultural influences during the Hellenistic period. The inherent difficulties in defining such interactions yield a veritable cache of explanatory terminology throughout the essays, with terms such as “entangled histories,” “appropriation,” “hybridity,” “syncretism,” and “interculturality/biculturality” variously deployed. In view of the complex issues associated with this type of loaded terminology, Stavrianopoulou has divided the book into four parts, all of which I will discuss briefly in the following.

The first section of the volume, entitled “Change and Continuity,” begins with a chapter from Deniz Kaptan (“Déjà Vu? Visual Culture in Western Asia Minor at the Beginning of Hellenistic Rule”). Kaptan uses the imagery on a select group of seals from Asia Minor to show the ways in which the seals' owners associated themselves with—and positioned themselves within—the larger world of the Achaemenid Empire. The contribution of Heather D. Baker (“The Image of the City in Hellenistic Babylonia”) is remarkable for further elaborating on Ian Moyer’s identification of “transcultural spaces” in the Ptolemaic world, this time by analyzing the multiple identities of Urukean elites and their development of relationships with different constituencies (both the center of power as well as local communities). Rolf Strootman (“Babylonian, Macedonian, King of the World: The Antiochos Cylinder from Borsippa and Seleukid Imperial Integration”) takes the Antiochos cylinder as a basis for questioning hitherto accepted paradigms for describing the Seleucid imperial program, investigating the ways in which the Seleucids sought to achieve imperial cohesion, rather than focusing on their passive acceptance and careful adoption of local ideologies. Gilles Gorre (“A Religious Continuity between the Dynastic and Ptolemaic Periods? Self-Representation and Identity of Egyptian Priests in the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BCE)”) outlines the phases of priestly self- identification in the Ptolemaic period, arguing that by the end of the 2nd century BC, the power of the priests was closely linked to their involvement in military or administrative affairs, initially with Greeks occupying these positions but later also the offspring of Greco-Egyptian unions. Eleni Fassa remains in the religious sphere with her contribution (“Shifting Conception of the Divine: Sarapis as Part of Ptolemaic Egypt’s Social Imaginaries”), where she discusses the Greek “translations” of Sarapis as “religious experiments” (135) and the effect that varied political and social conditions had on the Egyptian reception of these creative interpretations.

Part Two, “Modes of Cultural Appropriation,” is significantly more reliant on textual evidence, often focusing on translatory practices in more specific semantic contexts. Andrea Jördens’ piece, “Aretalogies,” studies the evolution of this text type and the inclusion of Egyptian elements from demotic hymns to Isis within Greek epigraphic evidence in a wide geographical span of the Hellenistic world. She argues that the Greeks initially attempted to adapt these Egyptian texts within the boundaries of Greek literature, with a later move closer to primary Egyptian characteristics, which would have reintroduced a sense of authenticity to the original. She identifies the aretalogos as the agent for this change, a definitive mediator between two cultures. Eftychia Stavrianopoulou’s own contribution (“Hellenistic World(s) and the Elusive Concept of ‘Greekness’”) likewise identifies an agent of translatory processes, this time the historiographos, who participated in inventing and “rewriting” the traditions of local communities in Asia Minor. Stavrianopoulou exhibits a strong case and provides a corresponding framework for understanding the creative processes behind the creation of “coherent systems of connections” (196) between Greeks and local communities in Asia Minor, through created mythologies of kinship which served as narrativized legitimation; these processes led to mutual transformations in the representations of the local histories in both Asia Minor and Greece. Sylvia Honigman (“’Jews as the Best of all Greeks’: Cultural Competition in the Literary Works of Alexandrian Judaeans of the Hellenistic Period”) elucidates the ways in which Alexandrian Jews manipulated texts and ideas regarding philosophical traditions, in order to situate themselves within Greek society through what she describes as a “mimetic project” (223-225). This literary activity followed the influence of older Alexandrian poets (e.g. Callimachus), who had themselves incorporated into their poetry both foreign (i.e. Egyptian) and Greek themes, as an effort to establish a cultural continuum. Christian Marek (“Political Institutions and the Lykian and Karian Language in the Process of Hellenization between the Achaemenids and the Diadochoi”) also focuses on textual evidence, analyzing multilingual political documents (a trilingual one from Xanthos and a bilingual one from Kaunos), showing “an unequivocal preference for the local language as the ‘state language’” (249) by their failure to reproduce or borrow Greek political terms. Through this analysis, he brilliantly shows the limits of previous approaches to ideas about the ubiquitous nature of “Hellenization.” Jessica L. Nitschke (“Interculturality in Image and Cult in the Hellenistic East: Tyrian Melqart Revisited”) outlines the ways in which iconography can be used—in conjunction with but also separately from texts—in order to highlight processes of adaptation and syncretism. Tracing the representations of Tyrian Melqart through numismatic evidence, Nitschke shows the varied interpretations of the god throughout the Hellenistic period, stressing changes (and varying use of Greek identifications of the god as a Herakles figure) as a matter of particular Phoenician political motivations. Christoph Michels (“The Spread of Polis Institutions in Hellenistic Cappadocia and the Peer Polity Interaction Model”) shows through civic decrees in Hanisa that the polis institution and its corresponding value system had entered even into areas without Greek cities. He problematizes Ma’s Peer Polity model, focusing on a more regional approach (as in the original development of the idea by Renfrew and Cherry) in order to prove that Cappadocians had a vested interest in participating in the dominant discourse of Greco-Macedonian culture. This “self-Hellenization” was motivated by the recognition of advantageous practices (in this case, the receipt of honors such as the title of euergetes) for a reinterpreted, local use. Such an argument allows Michels to transpose the initiative for cultural change from a centralized, intentional policy to “a much more plausible discourse between local élite, monarchic centre, and the wider Hellenistic world.” (302)

The third section of the volume, “Shifting Worldviews,” observes how the passage into a new social imaginary was negotiated and perceived by Greeks and non-Greeks alike; it also deals with the subject of delineating modern scholarly approaches to that ancient reception. Onno M. van Nijf presents the first essay, “Ceremonies, Athletics and the City: Some Remarks on the Social Imaginary of the Greek City of the Hellenistic Period.” He investigates the role of civic festivals and public ceremonies as contributors to the creation of social imaginaries in the Hellenistic cities. He argues for a mutual influence wherein the nature of the culture in the Hellenistic city produced “on the one hand, a politicization of the festivals and other public ceremonies, and, on the other, a theatricalization of political life.” (334) Andrew Erskine’s essay, “The View from the Old World: Contemporary Perspectives on Hellenistic Culture,” investigates the ways in which mainland Greeks perceived the new world of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Using textual and inscriptional evidence, he finds that there was no universally common opinion, but rather that perspectives shifted in varying circumstances. The contribution of Rachel Mairs (“The Hellenistic Far East: From the Oikoumene to the Community”) is exceptional for adopting a holistic perspective in order to approach the realities of local communities in the Hellenistic World more closely. In this she advocates a two-way dialogue, and seeks to define Bactria as a Hellenistic community in and of itself, rather than as a sum of influences from the Hellenistic oikoumene. Throughout, she problematizes modern definitions of identifying “foreignness” in any particular community in the Hellenistic world.

The final section in the book is a one-essay “Epilogue” by Omar Coloru (“Alexander the Great and Iskander Dhu’l-Qarnayn: Memory, Myth and Representation of a Conqueror from Iran to South East India through the Eyes of Travel Literature”). The essay, which serves as an excellent practical example of the book’s thematic, is especially notable for introducing Alexander the Great as a mutually understandable and usable entity for cultural definition in the Hellenistic period, and beyond. Reimagined in Persian and Arabic literary lore, Alexander’s presence within the collective memory of the West and the collective imaginary of the East allowed for lasting and meaningful intercultural discourses long after his death.

The volume covers a wide range of aspects of ancient life: religion, local politics, myth creation, literary production, and entertainment. Throughout, there is an acute awareness of methodological problems associated with identifying points of syncretism in the Hellenistic world and the limits of our approaches to understanding Hellenization (see e.g. the contribution of Nitschke). Further, the engagement with supplementary theoretical models, such as White’s Middle Ground theory9 (Strootman and Nitschke) and Ma’s Peer Polity Model (Michels and van Nijf) enhances the volume’s methodological grounding. No imperial paradigm (Seleucid, Ptolemaic etc) is overrepresented, and there is a sincere and effective attempt by all authors, using both textual and material evidence, to view these intercultural relationships through different—but not necessarily dichotomous—levels (for instance, the local vs. the global is highlighted, while there is never an endorsement of a “Greek” vs. “barbarian” ideology). Though the chapter divisions often appear artificially constructed due to the immense amount of theoretical and methodological overlap in the book, this problem is of little consequence; in fact, it is a testament to the coherence of the vision of the Hellenistic world as a space of social imaginaries that pervades every contribution to the work.

The volume contains numerous typographical errors (e.g. “beliefs” for “believes” p. 79 n.41; the citation of Liddell-Scott-Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon as Lidell-Scott Jones pg. xiv, among others) and problematic philological citation (e.g. Sumerograms in italics, undifferentiated from the Akkadian, on pg. 80 n. 44 and p. 82 n. 48 and 49, contrary to standard conventions followed in cuneiform studies). Such issues, however, are difficult to avoid in a volume containing studies of several ancient languages, and do not detract from the overall presentation. Furthermore, the maps provided on pp. xix, xx and 204-205 are cumbersome and difficult to read; one will benefit from supplementary use of maps as guides to the wide-ranging geographical spread of the book.


1.   Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford, 1989).
2.   Amélie Kuhrt and Susan Sherwin-White, From Samarkhand to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire (Berkeley; Los Angeles, 1993).
3.   Erich Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (Princeton; Oxford, 2011).
4.   Ian Moyer, Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism (Cambridge; New York, 2011).
5.   John Ma, “Peer Polity Interaction in the Hellenistic Age,” P&P 180 (2003) 9-39.
6.   Colin Renfrew and John F. Cherry (eds). Peer Polity Interaction and Socio-Political Change (Cambridge, 1986).
7.   Cornelius Castoriadis (translated by K. Blamey), The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge, 1987). Originally published as L’institution imaginaire de la société (Paris, 1975).
8.   Charles Taylor, “Modern Social Imaginaries,” Public Culture 14.1 (2002), 91-124.
9.   Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge; NewYork, 1991).

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